Kyer Wiltshire

coverwebViews the world through a spiritual lens
This moment. Yes, this one right here. Are you enjoying it? Are you milking it for all it’s worth, savoring its nuances, pouncing on its opportunities?

The reason I ask is that this moment happens to be the only game in town. Not to be a downer, but the paper on which these words are printed will one day yellow and fade, then wither and crumble. Everything we see—as well as the eyes we see it with and the brains we’re using to process it with—will eventually return to the earth, and all of our efforts, dreams, struggles and schemes will be forgotten. The truth of Emerson’s assertion “Life is a journey, not a destination” couldn’t be more evident: The end of the line is oblivion (or at the very least, the oblivion of our present forms), so let’s not be in such a hurry to “get there.” Instead, let’s make damned sure we enjoy the ride, shall we?

Various cultures have developed some inventive ways to acknowledge life’s impermanence and to redirect our focus to the process rather than the result. One obvious example is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of creating sand mandalas: sacred works of art that take several days to construct and are then destroyed shortly after completion. Another example (which, incidentally, also happens to involve plenty of sand, to which all things eventually return) is cover_ShaktiAmerica’s own yearly Burning Man festival, where artwork that has taken a year or more to construct is devoured by flames in mere minutes. Just to spell things out all the more clearly, the central ceremony at Burning Man is the fiery sacrifice of a faceless representative of humanity as a whole: an everyman known simply as The Man. This towering statue is reduced to sparks and dust, merging with the desert sand and blowing away forevermore, as if to say, “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”

This quality—impermanence—is, of course, an important part of what gives photography its magic. In the camera we have a tool for freezing in place the passing instant, the fleeting look of surprise, the here-and-gone birthday party, the coveted glow of youth. In so doing, we’re able to hold onto the moment, cherishing its preciousness and honoring the eternal within the temporal.

Such is the life’s work of Santa Cruz’s Kyer Wiltshire. Wiltshire’s work, which earned him the title of Best Photographer in GT’s 2009 Readers’ Poll, can be seen at kyerphotography.com, in the book “Tribal Revival: West Coast Festival Culture” (available through tribalrevivalbook.com and at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Logos and Jedzebel) and in the annual Sacred Form Nude Yoga Calendar (sold through sacredform.com and at the local shops mentioned above). Along with taking vivid, epic shots of neo-tribal festivals and events such as Burning Man, Harmony Festival, Faerie Worlds, Sea of Dreams and Oregon Country Fair, Wiltshire photographs locals engaged in such things as fire dancing, aerial dance and belly dancing. He is also known for his portraits, his wedding photography, his professional photos of bands like Michael Franti & Spearhead, Ozomatli, Lost at Last, Hamsa Lila, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and SambaDá, his tasteful nude shots and his travel photos taken in exotic regions like Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil and Costa Rica. One of his new artistic passions is documenting neo-tribal culture by way of video: http://vimeo.com/24686545.

“In some ways, all photography benefits from capriciousness,” the 47-year-old photographer observes. “I mean, the lighting is there for 30 seconds on the mountain, or that baby’s smile is there for an instant.” But Wiltshire feels that the element of impermanence is especially evident in his particular style of photography, which focuses on the neo-tribal subculture found at summer festivals like Burning Man. “The whole festival, in a way, is just this moment in time: It’s here now, and it’s gone, and then it comes back next year,” he says.

cover_MilanaWiltshire, who spent a month last winter in the former king’s private quarters of Bali’s Tirtagangga Water Palace, says that like all good photographers, he serves simply as a mirror. “We’re all mirrors—in all interactions, we’re mirroring each other constantly,” he notes. “But a good photographer is an extra-powerful mirror. Here I am taking a photo of you, and this is what you look like, by the way—at least in my eyes, in the way that I took it. In that mirroring, in that reflection, people’s essence, in many ways, comes out. And that is one of the most inspiring things about photographing people: meeting them on that level, even if it’s fleeting.”

Take a Picture—It’ll Last Longer

Though born in Japan, Wiltshire spent most of his formative years in Northwest Portland, Ore., which he describes as “kind of like Santa Cruz: In the ’70s, it was a very hippie, progressive, artistic place to be, and then in the ’80s, the yuppies came in and bought all the property.” When his parents split up, he spent part of his time with his mom in Portland and his dad in a small cabin in Eastern Oregon with no running water or electricity. Though the region in which his father lived was “very redneck and conservative,” it helped Wiltshire develop an appreciation for nature. “I’m a huge lover of nature—and of human nature,” he notes.

It was Wiltshire’s love of nature that first drew him to photography. “I grew up climbing mountains with my father, backpacking, and so I was taking pictures as a teenager … not very well; it was a hobby, and I didn’t understand lighting,” he explains. “I understood composition, but I didn’t understand what made a great photo. I understood what made a decent photo.”

Wiltshire started out as a landscape photographer, but as he points out, “mountains don’t move; mountains don’t interact with you.” The young shutterbug found a new direction while spending some time in Latin America. “I really started enjoying taking pictures of people, whether it was Indians in Guatemala or different people dancing in Mexico City,” he recalls. “I started realizing, ‘Yeah! You know, I’m actually able to bring something out of people and connect with them.’”

Wiltshire’s ability to engage people, which he considers his greatest asset as a photographer, affords him access to the Holy Grail of photography— that elusive element known as essence. “When somebody tells me, ‘Oh, you captured the essence of that person,’ or, ‘You captured my essence,’ that, to me, is the most notable and meaningful possible thing you could say about my work. And capturing the essence means that there’s a vulnerability for the subject; there’s a rawness to it. Even though they might be in character, it’s them. It’s not a façade.”

Years ago, Wiltshire came to a turning point in his career when he showed his portfolio to a well-known Dutch photographer who lives here in town. “He looked at it, and he said, ‘Technically good. Doesn’t really inspire me that much,’” Wiltshire recalls. “And he was right. Nothing I had in there was that interesting.” That photographer then explained to Wiltshire that he was intrigued by photography that shows a risk taken by either the photographer or the subject. “And that has resonated with me ever since,” Wiltshire says. “Photographing firedancing and having poi spin around your face is dangerous. Being photographed as the model doing naked yoga on the side of the cliff or [with] the waves crashing around you is edgy. There’s a risk involved, and that often is a big inspiration to me.”

cover_gilrzContact Lens

Examples of such risk-taking abound in Wiltshire’s book “Tribal Revival”: aerial dancers suspended in midair, Burning Man revelers braving the dust on the playa, a nude woman eating fire. The book’s cover, too, is edgier than it appears at first glance: Though you can’t tell, the woman playfully crawling out of the water toward the photographer is naked. “It’s like a little edge that I pushed there. I’ve got a nude woman on the cover, but nobody would know it!” Wiltshire laughs.

But there’s more to Wiltshire’s work than stunts, fireworks and bare flesh. The neo-tribal culture that he documents is a viable antidote to the insanity of consumer culture. For citizens of a supposed “real world” that values doodads and frivolous conveniences over human connection, a journey to Burning Man or Oregon Country Fair can feel like a much-needed return to reality.

According to Wiltshire, who began to photograph tribal gatherings in 2000, the West Coast’s festival culture is an extension of the Grateful Dead scene. “Most of these festivals didn’t exist before Jerry Garcia died,” he says. “The Dead was no longer around, and people said, ‘What are we going to do?’”

cover_weddingBut psychedelic culture has evolved in all kinds of compelling ways since the tie-dyed, electric Kool-Aid-drenched era that The Dead represented. “The subculture of the ’60s, with good reason, was rebelling against the dominant culture,” Wiltshire notes. “This tribal culture of today is not rebelling—it’s just saying, ‘We’re different, and we’re doing what we’re doing. We still live within mainstream society; many of us do have nine-to-five jobs. A lot of us don’t, but some do. And some of us may not believe in the capitalist system, but we’re not rebelling against it.’”

In Wiltshire’s view, the primary focus of neo-tribal culture is the worship of the Goddess and the feminine. “And I mean that for men as well,” he offers. “Men are encouraged to wear jewelry and look beautifully adorned, like women.” He adds that at many of the festivals he photographs, he can be seen walking around in a purple tutu.

While we’re on the subject of Goddess worship, we can’t help noticing how frequently Wiltshire turns his camera toward females, in all their naked beauty. “Guilty as charged!” he states with a laugh. “My favorite subject, of course, is the Divine Feminine, which is ever-changing—to, I think, great confusion to us men. Right?” he prods, swatting the interviewer’s arm playfully. “People are like, ‘Why don’t you photograph more men naked? I go, ‘Well, I have —for my calendar, but they don’t sell as well, and men are not always as into taking off their clothes for you, you know?’ Men are like, ‘I need to think about the ramifications in the long run.’ Young women in particular are like, ‘Hey, I’m in the moment now. I’m feeling beautiful. Let’s do it.’”

cover_baliIn explaining how he approaches a woman about doing such a photo shoot, he momentarily strikes a hunchbacked pose and adopts a weasley voice. “I show up, and I don’t look like some creepy guy going, ‘Hey, can I take your picture? I’ve got this little instamatic camera here—if I can get it working, I’ll take your picture. I always get my thumb in the way.’ You show up and you have the energy of ‘This is what I do. Do you want to participate?’ It’s an invitation to push the edges a little bit. I do sometimes carry a nice portfolio with me, so it’s like, ‘This is what I can create.’”

Wiltshire’s focus on the Divine Feminine is an extension of his love of beauty. “Sometimes photographers are inspired by darker subjects,” he notes. “I’m open to that—as a photographer, you of course want to always push your own edges—but I’m not always into capturing people’s dark and shadowy sides. I like to see them in their joy; I like to capture them in their flow, in their love, in their openness.”

At the end of the day, what we want most is connection, and Wiltshire sees his photography as a way of connecting with people. “Sometimes we’re graceful in that connection; sometimes we’re clumsy,” he offers. “We’re all human. I think photographing this culture and being involved in it in this way is a reminder that, yeah, we really are all connected, and we really have basically all the same fears and desires. Knowing that, there’s more space for acceptance, forgiveness and understanding of each other.”

Photo captions: This shot, one of many taken by Wiltshire at Burning Man, captures what he calls the “beauty, love, connection, spontaneity and impermanence” of his photographic journeys.
Another Burning Man image captures aspects of the divine feminine.
Freedom reigns at Burning Man.
Wiltshire’s images also delve into conventional corners. His wedding portraits deliver a distinctly original look. Lately, he says, he’s been shooting more LGBT weddings.
Wiltshire’s images from Bali capture the pureness in humanity.

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